John Rogers photo courtesy of Craig Taborn
Jazz pianist Craig Taborn can become so immersed in an improvised solo that well into it, he is amazed at where his playing has taken him.
Relying on a musical framework, cultural and historic references and his flights of fancy, the pianist can embark on thoughtful and surprising journeys that, with each performance, offer listeners something new.
In a varied concert that includes solo piano, electrified music and a jazz trio, Taborn will share his creations tonight at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. You can listen to my radio piece about the show here.
In a recent interview, he discussed his approach to creating spontaneous new music. Here’s part of our conversation:
David Cazares: Talk to me about balancing composition with improvisation. When you’re building an improvisation, whether on solo piano on in the trio, what’s going through your mind?
Craig Taborn: That depends on the improviser. There are a lot of tools available to negotiate an improvised environment. And it can run the gamut from really dealing very intensely with a very methodical, almost scientific structural approach to organizing all the elements of sound and music, you know like whatever one may use from notes and harmonies and rhythm to sound. You can be very, very rigorous and make sure you can sort of map, track, or grid or organize all of your materials.
If we draw it out on a line, there’s maybe that extreme of complete volitional control over specified elements all the way over to completely relying on intuition, however that may manifest. For most of us it’s some hybrid of those. You’re using information and you’re using your intuition to manipulate it, or vice versa. All these things work, and basically personal approach and personal style depend on any one of those, you know, just however you’re putting those things together. And that’s what makes different musicians interesting to improvise with.
But a broad definition for me of improvising is creating music in real time, composing, creating music in response — with other people if it’s a group improvisation — with very few materials or no materials predesigned. What that means then is that you’re basically attending to an environment, a sound environment. So you’re listing and interacting with that environment, using the tools you have and you’re creating on the spot is the ultimate idea.
You may be bringing whole pieces of material into that environment. You may really be trying to work from particles or just the smallest elements and create it on the spot. Some people improvise and bring larger chunks of things that they know and they put those in. But the canvas is the time it takes to create it and the music is what you create, what you paint on that canvas in real time. You’re just bringing whatever you have to the table.
Cazares: When I listen to Keith Jarrett, I’m thinking he’s just a stream of consciousness. Keith is taking me to one place and by the end of his long piece I’m at a completely different place. How much do you do that?
Tayborn: That can happen a fair amount. It happens sometimes with the trio, but the trio has certain compositions. I think with the solo piano project, largely as a response to that tradition of improvising — which is the long journey kind of odyssey, opening yourself to moment-to-moment inspiration and finding where it leads — ultimately that’s what’s going on but simply as a response to the level at which someone like Keith Jarrett did it. He’s a prime example [of that] long tradition of the long arch and really allowing it to unfold — of course he knows what he’s doing — but exploring intuitively where things take you.
My response, or my creative offering to that was to try to engage in body of improvised piano music that was much more focused on arriving at or deciding in real time but just sort of at the beginning [using] a few elements and seeing how much I could milk those. [I’m] giving myself the structure of designing with a limited set of materials at the beginning of any improvisation, which tends to lend a certain kind of cohesion, just because you’re limiting how much material you even have to work with. So there’s sort of a built in arch, or architecture in a way, that’s possible because after a certain point you’ll run out of things to do with that limited material. It kind of renders, or lends itself to like a shorter improvised arch sometimes. I’m still using intuition and following things but I’m definitely designing it more with a sense of like how I can structure with limited materials.
And I think Keith was doing that too. The tradition of the improvised solo piano thing was sort of that Keith Jarrett way, you know, which was to go long and went for a long time. I just thought, ‘oh, well that’s already been done in a lot of ways. So maybe if I try this approach it will yield something different or something that is a contribution to the whole thing.’ So that’s the difference there. But that’s a very volitional attempt to not do the Keith Jarrett approach in those ways.
Cazares: You don’t want to come across like you’re trying to sound like him.
Taborn: Yeah. And for me, so much is about process. I would be fine sounding like him if the process was different. I trust in the process. If you’re engaged with whatever you’re doing and you’re deciding on a way you’re going to create music, that’s where I place my trust and sort of the honesty. I’m going to do this thing because I’m coming up with this way of approaching the stuff. A lot of times when you do that, sometimes it emerges and you do sound like something else. But I’m not sounding like someone else because I’m trying to imitate. I’m arriving at some of the same solutions that this person did, but it’s because I engaged in a personal process. That’s a big thing for me.